One of the aspects of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas that has elevated the film to the classic status it holds today is the intense realism of its depictions of the life in the Mafia. This realism largely stems from the fact that, unlike films such as The Godfather and Once Upon A Time In America, Goodfellas is based on a true story of one gangster, his associates, and one of the most daring heists in American history.
The story comes courtesy of the 1986 nonfiction bestseller Wiseguy, which detailed the life of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill, as well as his comrades like James “Jimmy The Gent” Burke and Thomas DeSimone, and their involvement in the infamous Lufthansa heist.
This was, at the time, the largest robbery ever committed on U.S. soil. Eleven mobsters, mainly associates of the Lucchese crime family, stole $5.875 million (more than $20 million today) in cash and jewels from a vault at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Here are the true stories of the people who carried out this heist as well as countless other crimes that helped make Goodfellas the crime classic it is today.
Henry Hill, the central character in Goodfellas (played by Ray Liotta), was born in 1943 to an Irish-American father and a Sicilian-American mother in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.
It was a neighborhood filled with Mafiosos and Hill admired them all from a young age. At just 14, Hill dropped out of school to start working for Paul Vario, a capo in the Lucchese crime family, and thus became a member of the infamous Vario crew. Hill started out just picking up money from local rackets and bringing them to the boss, but his responsibilities quickly escalated.
He began to get involved in arson, assault, and credit card fraud. After returning from a short military stint in the early 1960s, Hill returned to a life of crime. Though his Irish blood meant that he could never be a made man, he nevertheless became a highly active associate of the Lucchese family.
Among Hill’s closest compatriots at this time was fellow Lucchese family associate and friend of Paul Vario, James Burke. After years of truck hijacking, arson, and other crimes (including extortion, for which he served time in the 1970s), Hill and Burke played major roles in orchestrating the Lufthansa heist in 1978.
At the same time, Hill was involved in a point-shaving racket with the 1978-79 Boston College basketball team and ran a major narcotics operation in which he sold marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and quaaludes wholesale.
It was the drugs that brought Hill’s downfall when he was arrested on trafficking charges in April 1980. Initially, he wouldn’t fold to police interrogators, but amid growing suspicions that some of his own associates were planning to kill him in fear that he might put them in legal trouble, Hill began to talk.
In fact, it was Hill’s testimony about the Lufthansa heist that brought the arrests of many of the other men involved — and became the basis for Wiseguy, and thus Goodfellas.
After testifying, Hill was placed in the Witness Protection Program but was kicked out of after repeatedly revealing his true identity to others. He was, nonetheless, never tracked down and killed by his former associates, but instead died of complications related to heart disease on June 12, 2012, the day after his 69th birthday.
James Burke a.k.a. “Jimmy The Gent”
James Burke, played by Robert De Niro as “Jimmy Conway” in the film, was the principal architect of the Lufthansa heist.
Soon after he was born — in 1931, to an Irish immigrant single mother in New York — Burke was placed into foster care and shifted from orphanages to foster homes and back throughout his childhood. He suffered sexual and physical abuse from these caretakers, with one of his foster fathers even dying in a car crash because he was reaching back to hit Burke. The man’s widow blamed Burke for the accident and beat him for it until the child was moved on to his next stop.
Like Henry Hill, Burke’s Irish-American heritage made it impossible for him to become a “made man,” but by the 1950s, he had become a major player in the South Ozone Park and East New York criminal underworld with Paul Vario’s crew, earning his nickname “Jimmy The Gent” for his practice of tipping the drivers of the trucks that he stole.
Despite his nickname, Burke was known for his extreme violence. In 1962, for example, his fiancee told him that she was being harassed by an ex-boyfriend. On the wedding day, the police found the remains of the man cut up in a dozen pieces in his own car.
Burke is also thought to be the one who ordered, and possibly carried out, the murders of most of the men involved in the Lufthansa heist.
Soon after, following Henry Hill’s testimony in 1982, Burke was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for his involvement in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal. While in prison, Burke was convicted of a previous murder he had committed and received another life sentence. He died in prison due to lung cancer in 1996.
Karen Hill — Henry’s wife, played by Lorraine Bracco in the film — was born Karen Friedman in New York City in 1946. Soon after her birth, her family moved to Long Island, where she was raised in the Five Towns area.
She first met Henry through mutual friends while she was working at a dental office in New York. The pair’s first meeting — at the Villa Capra, a restaurant owned by notorious mobster “Frankie The Wop” — was a double date involving Paul Vario’s son, Paul Jr. (not Thomas DeSimone, as depicted in the film).
At first, Karen said that the date was disastrous and that Henry even stood her up on her second date, only further lowering her opinion of him. However, following a number of lavish dates after these initial fiascos, the two became a couple.
Karen and Henry eloped to North Carolina in 1965 when she was just 19, but eventually had a large Jewish ceremony back home to appease her parents. Soon after, they had two children, Gregg and Gina, and lived together with Karen’s parents before moving into their own place as Henry’s status rose within Vario’s crew.
But things turned sour when Henry went to prison on extortion charges in the 1970s. In his memoirs, Henry claims that, during this time, Karen was sleeping with Vario. When Henry faced prison again, on drug charges in 1980, he instead testified for the government, entered the Witness Protection Program, and took Karen and their kids along with him.
Eventually, however, Karen and Henry divorced in 1989, though it was not finalized until 2001.
Since then, she has remarried and lived under an alias due to the exposure from Wiseguys and Goodfellas.
Thomas DeSimone served as the inspiration for “Tommy DeVito,” the Goodfellas character played by Joe Pesci in an Academy Award-winning performance. Unlike Pesci, however, DeSimone was an imposing man who stood 6’2″ and weighed 225 pounds.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1950 to a deeply-rooted Mafia family, DeSimone soon after moved to New York City with his family.
DeSimone’s extended family included feared mobsters like a grandfather and an uncle who were both bosses of a Los Angeles crime family in the 1920s and 1950s, respectively. DeSimone also had two brothers that were associates of the powerful Gambino crime family in New York, one of which was murdered by the family for allegedly cooperating with authorities. The weight of his brother’s reputation left DeSimone with something to prove, causing him to frequently lash out at others with violence. Finally, his sister, Phyllis, was a mistress of Jimmy Burke. Through this connection, Burke brought DeSimone on as a member of the Vario crew.
In the testimony used for the book Wiseguy, Henry Hill recalls that when he first met DeSimone, he was “a skinny kid who was wearing a wiseguy suit and a pencil mustache.” But at the age of 17, DeSimone committed his first murder. He shot a random pedestrian walking past him and Hill. He reportedly told Hill, “Hey, Henry, watch this.” before shooting the man in the head with a .38 pistol.
According to Hill, DeSimone relished the idea of killing people, his murderous tendencies aided by the fact that he was very often high on cocaine.
Perhaps DeSimone’s most brutal murder came in 1970, during a welcome home party for formerly imprisoned William “Billy Batts” Bentvena, a made man in the Gambino family. DeSimone became enraged over a snide comment that Bentvena made about DeSimone having once been a shoeshine boy. A couple of weeks later, because of the shoeshine comment as well as the fact that Burke had taken over Bentvena’s loan shark operation while the latter was in prison and didn’t want to relinquish it, Burke and DeSimone plotted to kill Bentvena.
Burke invited Bentvena to a bar owned by Hill for a night of drinking with the Vario crew. Burke got Bentvena drunk and then held him down while DeSimone beat him with a pistol. Thinking he was dead, Burke, Hill, and DeSimone placed him in the trunk of their car and drove away. After hearing sounds from the trunk, DeSimone and Burke realized that he was not yet dead, then beat and stabbed him to death before burying his body under a dog kennel.
Eight years later, during the Lufthansa heist, DeSimone acted as one of the key gunmen who collected the money. Then, following the robbery, he also carried out the killing of Parnell “Stacks” Edwards, a criminal associate that the thieves had hired to dispose of the truck used in the heist, but who had failed to do so.
In 1979, almost a year after the heist, DeSimone was declared missing. He was likely killed by the Gambino crime family in retaliation for the murder of Bentvena. Hill further alleged that DeSimone was handed over to the Gambinos by Vario, who had learned that DeSimone had attempted to rape Karen Hill, Henry’s wife and Vario’s mistress.
At the head of the operation responsible for many of the crimes committed by Thomas DeSimone, Henry Hill, and James Burke was Paul Vario, renamed “Paul Cicero” and played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas.
Vario was born in New York City in 1914 and began getting himself into legal trouble from an early age. By the time he was an adult, Vario was an experienced criminal, and at 6’3″, an imposing figure. His involvement in racketeering and loan-sharking led him into the Lucchese crime family, with which he became a made man and eventually a crew leader (“capo”).
With this crew and other associates, Vario gained control of most organized crime in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, near what is now known as John F. Kennedy International Airport, a major source of income for Vario’s crew.
Vario would rob the airport, extort its employees, and use his union connections to block federal investigators. And when Jimmy Burke came to Vario with the plans for the Lufthansa heist at the airport, it was ultimately Vario who had to approve it.
Not merely a boss who approved criminal activities without getting his own hands dirty, Vario himself was known to be a violent man. When a waiter accidentally spilled wine on his wife at a restaurant, for example, Vario sent men with baseball bats to beat the restaurant’s staff later that night.
In the end, Vario was arrested based on Hill’s testimony that Vario had defrauded the government by creating a fictitious job that would ensure Hill’s release from prison. Vario died in prison of a heart attack in 1988.
William Bentvena a.k.a. “Billy Batts”
William “Billy Batts” Bentvena was born in 1921 in New York City and was raised in the same part of east Brooklyn as Henry Hill. In Goodfellas, Bentvena is only referred to by his nickname and is played by Frank Vincent.
Like his compatriots in the neighborhood, Bentvena became involved in crime at a young age, and by 1951 he was an associate of the Gambino crime family.
Unlike Henry Hill, Bentvena was a full-blooded Italian-American, and as such was able to become a made man. He reached this rank in 1961 and began carrying out hits as a street soldier with infamous mobster John Gotti.
He was arrested in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1964 while conducting a drug deal for the Gambino family and was sentenced to six years in prison. While Bentvena was in prison, Burke took over his loanshark operation.
Upon Bentvena’s release, Burke and DeSimone murdered him rather than give back the loanshark operation.